Fergus Finlay: Ingenuity required to deliver political myths and mantras

A political myth, although generally false, requires a grain of truth but a mantra needs so much repetition to be assumed a fact, writes Fergus Finlay
Fergus Finlay: Ingenuity required to deliver political myths and mantras
Newly appointed agriculture minister Dara Calleary leaving the Convention Centre Dublin following a Dáil session. Picture: Brian Lawless

Isn’t it funny how political myths and mantras can do so much damage. Even the relatively harmless ones can generate bad relationships and political instability. Sometimes, of course, that’s exactly what they’re designed to do.

The creation of a political myth requires ingenuity. The myth, although false, has to have a grain of truth. It has to be rooted in something that is eminently believable.

The mantra is different. A political mantra is a message repeated over and over again — to the point where the audience knows what’s coming, and assumes it to be fact. It’s usually a simple message, always stark, and always delivered with total conviction, as if it was something everyone knew all the time.

The difference between the myth and the mantra is in the degree of ingenuity applied. It’s like the difference between brain and brawn. 

The myth is usually subtle, delivered in a whisper and allowed to grow where it’s planted. The mantra is shouted from the rooftops. You can’t avoid hearing it.

Used effectively, especially in tandem, the myth and the mantra can be powerful medicine. Concepts we’d never heard before can become simple truths — all as a result of the application of what you might call the “m&m treatment”.

Take the first couple of weeks of the life of our present Government, for example. There was devastation, it seems, when the West of Ireland wasn’t represented at the Cabinet table. This was going to result in untold hardship and deprivation. The Taoiseach was even compared to Oliver Cromwell at one point.

But it’s yet another example of the m&m approach to politics — apparently this time the myths and mantras were believed by senior politicians and eminent commentators alike.

Here’s a sad truth. While senior politicians can occasionally shift a few goodies, they have rarely made a fundamental difference to the everyday lives of their constituents that’s discernibly different from the lives of citizens in other constituencies.

Just take one example — the constituency of Dublin Central. It has had changing geographical boundaries over the years, but at its heart are some of the highest rates of poverty and inequality in Ireland. George Colley was its TD for years. So was one of the most influential back-benchers we ever had, Tony Gregory. 

For twenty years Bertie Ahern drew votes from every street corner in the constituency. And for the last number of years it has been represented by Paschal Donohoe, the man in charge of the purse strings in good financial times.

Dublin Central had some of the highest rates of poverty and inequality in Ireland even when Paschal Donohoe was finance minister. Picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins
Dublin Central had some of the highest rates of poverty and inequality in Ireland even when Paschal Donohoe was finance minister. Picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins

The blighted physical appearance of many parts of the constituency, sitting incongruously adjacent to the shiny offices of international capital in the IFSC, and the scale of disadvantage in the lives of too many constituents, could still form a good backdrop to a modern O’Casey play.

That whole thing about the West of Ireland being utterly neglected because of the absence of a minister at the cabinet table is such a silly myth that it promptly disappeared the minute Dara Calleary was appointed to the Cabinet to replace Barry Cowen. 

Mind you the sub-head on The Irish Times coverage of the appointment was “The appointment means the West of Ireland now has a senior Cabinet Minister”.

Good luck with that one Minister. The West of Ireland has for generations been represented by Fianna Fáilers with names like de Valera, Lenihan, O’Rourke and Blaney, and by Fine Gaelers with names like Higgins, Kenny and Flanagan. If the myth was true, it’s hard to understand why the Shannon isn’t being panned for gold.

Mind you, if you ever do want to see the impact of a powerful politician on the lasting development of the West, drive up to Carrigart in Donegal and take a trip across the Harry Blaney bridge. It cost around €40m, it’s about 30 yards long, and you’ll have it entirely to yourself. It’s a wonderful example of politicians shifting goodies, but you’ll never be able to figure out how it has contributed to the ending of disadvantage in the West of Ireland. Because it hasn’t.

For all that, the link between local representation and neglect is one of the more benign myths, despite all the damage it occasionally does. 

To really understand the corrosive impact of m&m politics, you have to look at the other side of the Atlantic.

I was listening to Donald Trump being torn apart on Fox news the other night. (Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) But he was being interviewed by Chris Wallace, who’s a real journalist and the son of one of America’s most famous reporters Mike Wallace. And Trumpy became more and more agitated as the interview went on and Wallace challenged each of his lies in turn.

US president Donald Trump has told the same lie so often that he has lost the ability to distinguish between the truth and a lie.
US president Donald Trump has told the same lie so often that he has lost the ability to distinguish between the truth and a lie.

But the second thing that fascinated me was my own dawning realisation that Donald Trump has told the same lie so often that he has lost the ability (if he ever had it, that is) to distinguish between the truth and a lie.

As just one example, he announced to Wallace that the US had one of the lowest mortality rates in the world. 

Looking him in the eye, Wallace said calmly, “that’s not true, sir”. At which point the president demanded that Wallace produce the figures, because, he said “I heard we had the best mortality rate”.

The fact that this is a lie is bad enough. The fact that the president of the US now either believes his own lies or doesn’t know the difference is even more troubling.

Trump got to the White House by using myths and mantras to devastating effect, by telling simple lies so often that people believed they had to be true. The lies eventually transmogrified into simple attack phrases — and it is almost impossible to trace them back to their roots.

The most powerful example of the m&m treatment in recent times comes from Trump’s first campaign and was created by Trump. 

It’s in the simple phrase “Lock her up” — a phrase that summed up an entire movement’s hatred of Hillary Clinton in one short, memorable, and devastating lie.

But nobody in the US could tell you now why Hillary should be locked up. What crime has she been charged with, or accused of, or convicted of? That doesn’t matter. “Lock her up” has all the truth we need.

The power of political myths and mantras lies in the fact that we, the poor old decent ordinary citizens, come to regard them as nothing but the gospel truth. 

But this is the first time that I can remember that the perpetrator of vicious political myths believed them too.

It says a lot about the health and wellbeing of the president of the US that he unhesitatingly believes the lies he has told others. 

But it ought to frighten the lives out of the rest of us.

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